This is not an objective piece of writing.
For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:
- As an educated middle-aged white bloke with agency and economic means I recognise that I am operating at the least level of difficulty in this (my) society. (Thanks to author John Scalzi https://whatever.scalzi.com for that nugget).
- I’ve never served time and there is no history of prison service in my family.
- Writing and podcasting about my experiences is first and foremost a selfish act: It helps me make sense of them which helps me be better at that work. If other people are moved to consider their own stuff as a result of being drawn into mine then I’ve hit both my markers.
This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:
- With very few exceptions prison should return men and women who have committed a crime back to society ready and able to contribute and participate as a paid-up member of the human race.
- With very few exceptions those people deserve that chance.
- Many parts of our justice system need wholesale reform. The challenge for people like me is how to make a meaningful contribution among the chaos and contradictions – and that’s a work in progress for most of us, I suspect.
It was supposed to be easier this time around. (see earlier blog Putting The Band Back Together)
But September rolled around and I had still not managed to re-start my work in prison with folks on the other side of the bars.
And I’ve had funding from NHS to do just that since April.
Trust me I’ve tried – oh yes by crikey I’ve tried.
Because it felt like theft I’d checked back at least twice along the lines of:
‘Er, you know that money you gave me back in Easter? Well, I really am trying to find a way to spend it on what we agreed I’d spend it on but so far…
You OK that I’m still sitting on it?’
Bless ‘em they were and are because what I was telling them about my experience of bashing my head against a brick wall this time around chimed with what they were finding too: Usual system chaos ramped up to Number 11 by a post-Covid staff crisis – namely that lots of the recently recruited new young ones are leaving.*
Which means a successful day reduces down to covering just the essential functions.
Which means that people like me – easy to dismiss as ‘non-essential’ – become one ball too many in the great game of keepy-upy.
‘Cos the reality is that I need the presence and support of staff to do what I do in the way that I do it in there. It’s a bit out of the ordinary and requires a touch of operational stretch.
So ‘we’ve not got enough staff’ can be both true and a smokescreen to hide behind – if you’re a disciple of the Church of Learned Helplessness.
I really didn’t expect to have to sell this thing all over again either.
My path to re-start had been further broken by two other changes: New staff in roles that mattered to me and my stuff, and my key staff advocate moved to a new more distant role.
The loss of the latter made me realise how much he’d flown the flag at ground level for us and generally oiled the wheels. Sh** was just way easier with him on board and his loss meant more unexpected hard yards for me.
I was pissed ‘cos it felt like I’d earned my stripes with the pre-Covid work – and here I was being given short thrift in short order.
Before this descends into full rant let’s bring you right up to date:
As I write I am deep into pre-start work with the Elderly & Disabled men – known as the Vulnerable Prisoner group. ‘Vulnerable’ because they are old and frail and need help to look after themselves even at a basic level, and/or Vulnerable because they are at risk from other men in the prison.
Because of the nature of their offences.
This group is also the fastest growing population in our prisons in part because prosecutions have been catching up with crimes committed 10-20-30 years ago and more.
They are housed in a prison within the prison that sounds, looks and feels quite different:
It’s very quiet with very little movement.
Everywhere is clean and neat – ‘one careful owner’ comes to mind.
The pace is slow, staff are measured and operationally it feels very therapeutic.
And yet here be monsters.
There are indeed men here who have been convicted of truly horrific crimes – which means I have a choice to make.
Do I choose to see the monstrosity or the potential for something else/better?
And that’s also a stretch because there are men here with sentences longer than their expected lifespan.
It’s also an illusion because the reality is that this is not a simple binary choice about the perspective I hold: I need to be able to hold both because (a) reality is always more shades of grey than black and white and (b) there are men here who are very good at hiding world class manipulation skills behind a friendly face. So I need my wits alongside my compassion.
By now the support system I run to keep me where I need to be for this work is well developed. By no means bomb-proof but seems to repair well after saturation:
I choose to see a human being with potential
I use first names and make eye contact
I use open questions
I never ask after the offence
If the offence is offered I’ll listen – and that’s all I’ll do
I make sure I exercise before I end my day
I have people I can talk to if I’m really caught in a loop
And remember that the world is messy and people are complex.
*15% of prison officers left the service last year - half had been in post for less than 3 years and a quarter in post for less than a year (Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing summer 2022)
Timeline RFYL CIC
You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in:
2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start
2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison
2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££
2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected
2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids
2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££
2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid)
2019 June: First corporate sponsorship from Kebbell Homes
2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community
2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown
2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut
2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford
2021 March: Three programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford
2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation supports the governor work
2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits
2022 Feb: Start working online with deputy governors and governor PAs
2022 March: Secure NHS funding to re-start in-prison work
2022 Oct: In-prison work finally re-starts HMP Wymott Vulnerable Prisoners